In the wake of the recent announcement that the former campus dining center McConaughy Hall (MoCon) is set to be demolished this summer, students, alumni, and community members have flooded the University blogosphere with impassioned responses from all sides of the debate, igniting discussion over the artistic, financial, and sentimental value of the building.
“We [alumni] thought they would keep it up for 20 years before they figured out something else to do with it,” said Ron Medley ’73. “We weren’t aware how imminent the demolition was.”
The process of finding a contractor for the demolition project is already underway and final bids are due on March 8, said Director of University Media Relations David Pesci. According to President Michael Roth, some alumni have indicated that they will be less inclined to donate to the University in the future if the demolition occurs, although none have offered to donate funds to restore the current structure.
“I respect their views,” Roth wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “But we don’t make decisions that way.”
Several alumni and students posted on The Argus website in response to a Feb. 12 article about the University’s plans to demolish the former dining hall. Many expressed disapproval of the plans while others agreed with Associate Vice President for Physical Plant Facilities Joyce Topshe’s assertion that adaptive reuse is not a financially viable option.
Matthew Weiner ’87, creator of the AMC series Mad Men, posted a comment on Feb. 20, expressing his belief that the University is disregarding MoCon’s value as a piece of art and saying “they obviously forgot that a University’s true financial health is related to its standing in the mind of its graduates.” In a recent conversation with the Argus, Weiner explained his frustration.
“You can’t put a price tag on this sort of thing,” he said. “I think they should spend the money to maintain it until the economy turns around.”
Weiner also suggested that a certain double standard exists at Wesleyan where the University’s athletics receive significant alumni support, while the arts fall on the back burner. Weiner joked about potential future uses for McConaughy that would curry greater financial support.
“If people could play sports in it, things would be a lot different,” he said. “Make it a gym.”
Medley, who also posted on the article, expressed a different sentiment. Instead of maintaining the building until money is available for adaptive reuse, he suggested that the University rebuild McConaughy in a more sustainable fashion after the current, inefficient structure has been torn down.
“There is precedent for demolishing a college building and then rebuilding it the way it was,” Medley said in a conversation with The Argus. “Amherst has done it. I don’t see why that when Wesleyan gets the money, it can’t do the same and call it McConaughy.”
The grandson of MoCon’s namesake President, Jim McConaughy ’68, MA ’74 also commented on the Feb. 12 article, expressing his disappointment with the University’s decision.
“Many people will miss McConaughy Hall,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “What is different in my case is that McConaughy Hall was named after my grandfather and so there is an added sadness and disappointment to think of its imminent demolition.”
Roth argued that buildings, especially dining halls, should not be expected to last permanently. Roth also said that the University will find another way to memorialize President McConaughy’s name on campus after MoCon’s demolition. He acknowledged the passionate responses of alumni and explained that the University has, in fact, explored many options for MoCon’s future.
“As an alumnus myself, I understand nostalgia, and I, too, have positive feelings for the building,” Roth said. “I respect those people voicing their frustration with the plans for demolition, and I have examined various alternatives. But the building is an eyesore right now and it’s going to be a hazard if we leave it the way it is. I’m not willing to spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t make sense.”
Designed by architect Charles Warner in 1962 and named after President James L. McConaughy, the cylindrical hall was built in a modernist style incorporating many native materials, according to Circuit Rider for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation (CT Trust) Gregory Farmer, who said that he evaluated the building in summer 2007 after it had closed. Although it was no longer in active use, the building was in stable condition at that time, and Farmer recommended to now-retired professor Dick Buel that the University maintain the building to prevent deterioration. The CT Trust considers the adaptive reuse of existing buildings to be the most cost-effective type of recycling. Any energy that was used to erect the building in the first place, they argue, becomes wasted when the building is demolished and the materials go into a landfill.
“Unfortunately, the college was not responsive to my suggestions for preserving the building, securing it from damage, and exploring creative options for adaptive reuse,” Farmer wrote in an e-mail to The Argus.
According to Pesci, there is no record that a meeting between Farmer and administration or Physical Plant employees occurred or that he submitted recommendations for the preservation of McConaughy.
“As for his contention that we have not explored ‘creative options for adaptive reuse,’ this is patently untrue as evidenced by the extensive list of possible re-use options we have explored and shared with The Argus and the campus community,” Pesci wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “Virtually all of these were found to be exceptionally cost-exclusive to the point, in some cases, of being significantly more expensive than creating an entirely new structure.”
On campus, student opposition to the demolition plans has been gathering support. Miles Bukiet ’11 started the Facebook group “Save Mocon” several weeks ago in order to find a feasible way to preserve McConaughy Hall and demonstrate the large following of students the building has. While Bukiet never ate a meal in MoCon, he became familiar with it after helping to coordinate the annual Waste Not! student-run tag sale that was hosted there last fall. Although he initially only invited a few friends to join the group, there are now over 1,300 members, including current students and many alumni.
“That reflects that it’s a building a lot of people care about,” he said. “When you have 1,300 people, it becomes very different. It provides some leverage.”
After learning about the University’s decision to demolish the structure, Bukiet began contacting Physical Plant staff and administrators to find out more specific information about the plans. Generally speaking, however, MoCon’s partisans are not optimisitc.
“If there is anything to be done, it has to be done this week,” Bukiet said.
“The hubbub started when it was too late,” Weiner said.